Obama’s Foreign Policy Legacy Will Be More About Risk Mitigation Than Great Triumphs

A woman holds a placard reading 'Putin, hands off Ukraine' depicting a collage of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Soviet leader Josef Stalin during a demonstration against the attendances of Russian military in Crimea on March 8, 2014 at the Venceslas Square, in Prague.
National Journal
Norm Ornstein
March 12, 2014, 2:33 p.m.

It is not un­com­mon for second-term pres­id­ents to turn more of their at­ten­tion and fo­cus to for­eign policy. Do­mest­ic polit­ics and policy be­come in­creas­ingly frus­trat­ing, as the pres­id­ent’s par­tis­ans in Con­gress hunker down in pre­par­a­tion for a lousy midterm elec­tion, the party’s ideo­lo­gic­al base be­comes more bel­li­ger­ent, and the op­pos­i­tion party gets bolder. The pres­id­ent has had five years or more of en­ga­ging in for­eign af­fairs and with for­eign lead­ers. And the free­dom to act without the con­straints set by do­mest­ic polit­ics and the powers of Con­gress, to move chess pieces on the in­ter­na­tion­al stage, is highly tempt­ing.

Of course, what pres­id­ents want to do on the world stage is move those chess pieces and shape out­comes to make his­tory through great ac­com­plish­ments. That is what Pres­id­ent Obama has in mind with the ne­go­ti­ations over Ir­an’s nukes, the at­tempt to forge an agree­ment between Is­rael and the Palestini­an Au­thor­ity, and, to a less­er de­gree, the Syr­i­an chem­ic­al-weapons agree­ment.

But the harder real­ity is that most of the time the pres­id­ent will spend on for­eign policy in com­ing months will fo­cus on risk mit­ig­a­tion — try­ing to avoid a cata­strophe more than work­ing to cre­ate a tri­umph. That is true in Afgh­anistan, as Ham­id Kar­zai con­tin­ues to ca­reen out of con­trol; in Syr­ia, as Bashar al-As­sad vies with Kim Jong Un for status as the world’s most bru­tal butcher; in Venezuela, as Nicolás Ma­duro des­cends from au­thor­it­ari­an rule in­to sheer thug­gery; in Tur­key, as a thor­oughly cor­rupt Tayyip Er­dogan strips his coun­try of its hard-fought and hard-won demo­crat­ic in­sti­tu­tions and prin­ciples; in the po­ten­tial for ser­i­ous con­flict between China and Ja­pan over the Sen­kaku Is­lands.

Then there is Ukraine. The chal­lenges to the pres­id­ent are for­mid­able, and they start with a lar­ger real­ity: Deal­ing with a li­on’s share of the oth­er crises above — Syr­ia and Ir­an, es­pe­cially — re­quires try­ing to reach agree­ment with Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin, either to help re­solve them or at least to re­frain from mak­ing them much, much worse. Putin saved the pres­id­ent from a huge em­bar­rass­ment with the in­ter­ven­tion to re­solve Syr­ia’s chem­ic­al-weapons stock­pile, just be­fore the Sen­ate would have voted down his re­quest for au­thor­iz­a­tion to use force to pun­ish As­sad for us­ing the weapons re­peatedly against Syr­i­ans. Rus­sia is a key play­er in the del­ic­ate ne­go­ti­ations with Ir­an over its nuc­le­ar pro­gram. Mo­scow can make the U.S. trans­ition out of Afgh­anistan more pain­ful and dis­rupt­ive, and can be a pos­it­ive or neg­at­ive play­er in ne­go­ti­ations between the Is­rael­is and Palestini­ans.

For those who im­me­di­ately began call­ing for the harshest sanc­tions we can ap­ply against Rus­sia after its out­rageous be­ha­vi­or in Crimea, those con­sid­er­a­tions were nowhere evid­ent. Of course, one can make the case — and it is a power­ful one — that Putin’s Rus­sia will act in its cold, hard self-in­terest no mat­ter what we do to try to ap­pease it or cush­ion any re­ac­tion. But it is also likely that the harder we push, the more Rus­sia will re­spond in a hard and neg­at­ive way in every oth­er area of our in­terest, at least in the short run. And when it comes to Rus­sia and Syr­ia, the short run is ab­so­lutely cru­cial.

Non­ethe­less, it is clear that Putin be­lieves in power and power only. If there is no tough re­sponse to his takeover of Crimea, it will sig­nal to him that there is an open field for fur­ther ag­gress­ive moves, start­ing with, but not likely end­ing with, East­ern Ukraine.

But here comes the second ma­jor chal­lenge for the pres­id­ent: Ser­i­ous moves against Rus­sia be­gin with tough ac­tions against the cor­rupt ol­ig­archs, Putin and his cronies, who run the show, and with severe eco­nom­ic sanc­tions against Rus­sia’s weak eco­nomy. Those are doable — but only with the co­oper­a­tion of our E.U. al­lies. And the Europeans have little stom­ach to do much at all. In Lon­don, where a boom­ing real-es­tate mar­ket has been fueled by Rus­si­an bil­lion­aires buy­ing houses and flats for up to a hun­dred mil­lion pounds (!), and where there is real fear that burst­ing the hous­ing bubble will sink an already pre­cari­ous eco­nomy, there is no chance that the Brits will crack down on travel by the ol­ig­archs or hit them hard in oth­er ways.

Throughout Europe, where trade with Rus­sia is ro­bust, eco­nom­ic sanc­tions would be pain­ful — much more pain­ful than they would be for the United States. Much of Europe de­pends also heav­ily on Rus­si­an oil and nat­ur­al gas.

The third di­lemma for the pres­id­ent has do­mest­ic im­plic­a­tions. A de­clar­a­tion from Obama that the U.S. will be­gin sig­ni­fic­ant ex­ports of nat­ur­al gas, along with ramp­ing up nat­ur­al-gas pro­duc­tion, would be pain­ful to Rus­sia. To be sure, li­que­fy­ing the gas and ship­ping it by con­tain­er is no equi­val­ent to the pipelines bring­ing the gas to European coun­tries from Rus­sia. But the com­bin­a­tion of in­creased ex­ports and in­creased pro­duc­tion would hit Putin right in the wal­let.

For­mid­able forces at home op­pose more U.S. gas ex­ports, however. Some fear a short-term in­crease in do­mest­ic prices, and oth­ers worry about the in­crease in frack­ing that would come with the policy change. And the lat­ter group, es­pe­cially the en­vir­on­ment­al act­iv­ists already agit­at­ing against the pos­sible ap­prov­al of the Key­stone XL pipeline and deeply op­posed to any ex­pan­sion of oil-and-gas ex­plor­a­tion and drilling, are a ser­i­ous thorn in the pres­id­ent’s side.

With a new NBC News/Wall Street Journ­al poll show­ing a sharp de­crease in en­thu­si­asm among Demo­crats head­ing in­to the cru­cial midterm elec­tions, there is a price to be paid for a pres­id­en­tial move on this front.

Putin run­ning rampant, head­aches around the world, head­aches from al­lies, head­aches from his own base. All of these come with the ter­rit­ory for a second-term pres­id­ent. Obama and his sec­ret­ary of State, the for­mid­able John Kerry, may well nav­ig­ate through this. But first they will earn a many more gray hairs and en­dure many more sleep­less nights.

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